This article first appeared in the June/July 2021 print edition of First Things.
I shall search for a garden where I can retire, and renew my spirit during this time filled with divorces, plagues, epidemics, and those other tribulations with which our present moment is so troubled.” So begins one of the more remarkable sixteenth-century treatises, “The True Recipe” (1563) by Bernard Palissy. (“Recipe” here might also mean “receipt.”) After a long discussion of agricultural fertilizer and the composition of soil and rocks, Palissy outlines the fantastical garden he hopes to build. It is filled with intricate rock formations, odd buildings constructed of tree trunks and polished stone, strange ornamentation, and streams and springs crawling with snakes and toads.
A garden of snakes! Snakes, frogs, lizards, and shellfish are images long associated with Palissy. He became famous for his innovative ceramics, many of which were decorated with enameled live-cast images of these creatures. Having lifted the lettuce from one of his large plates, a diner might find a glittering viper lying at the bottom. His works are found in museums around the world, and his name is attached to the formal method of lead-glazed earthenware he developed. Palissy was an autodidact who, while becoming one of the most prominent designers in the French court, contributed to the still-young sciences of geology and zoology. He was also an ardent Protestant at a time when religious fervor often led to torment. Despite the protection of the Catholic monarch, he suffered more than one imprisonment and finally succumbed to beatings and starvation in the Bastille in 1589.
Palissy’s snakes and lizards—profuse, wild, and shrouded—have long fascinated critics. A vague Renaissance interest in the monstrously bizarre hardly accounts for them. The clue to their meaning lies in Palissy’s Christian faith. He was an indefatigable explorer of marshes and seabeds, observing and collecting the denizens of a world long associated with the “unclean” animals, those lowest to the ground, creeping, crawling, encrusted with the earth’s elemental ingredients. Here was the borderland of life and death, within the mud of primeval genesis, where divine creation holds manifest sway. The wetlands seemed a place where life emerges from slime—worms and fungi appearing from nothing—and falls back again into the gloom of eternal purpose. Palissy’s vision of a reptilian oasis was Levitical in its premise of God’s mysterious ordering of being. It also echoed the psalms. Palissy’s foundational model for his garden was Psalm 104, with its description of the full panoply of eccentric creative forms: In the abundant disorder of the world, God does his work.
The garden Palissy described in his treatise was not imaginary. He began to build versions of it—grottos, springs, and the rest—for, among others, Queen Catherine de Medici in the Tuileries. His goal was to construct a space where God’s power over life and death could be experienced anew, tasted and savored, as a balm to the simplistic limitations that his world had imposed upon human experience. The gardens betoken not life or death—this or that—as if all we can expect were a desperate moment of vitality to be swallowed up by night, but rather the coruscating grace of God over all, opening to a deep spiritual transformation. Palissy insisted that verses from Scripture be emblazoned on the walls of his landscaped grottos, where the dark creatures scurried: “Come, all you who are thirsty!” (Is. 55:1). Or, as he explains to his reader, “Though God created in six days . . . creation itself—the stars, planets, seas, and earth—does not remain idle.”
Palissy’s attraction to creation’s borderlands resonated with the culture of his times. The question of spontaneous generation, for instance, had long challenged natural philosophers, and the damp swamps of the countryside had seemed like laboratories of graced metamorphosis. As one seventeenth-century scholar put it when observing how, from the corpses of two similar caterpillars, there could arise a delicate butterfly or a mass of sticky flies: It was all a “new resurrection.” For Palissy, the good life brings this transformative reality into one’s soul. The divinely ordered but often unruly transmutations of rocks, manure, water, shells, plants, putrefaction, and growth are images of the same in us.
A hundred years later, a Dutch painter by the marvelous name of Otto Marseus van Schrieck began painting hard-edged still-life scenes that were likewise obsessed with the “inferior” creatures of the world, the kind one would find by “sniffing about” the undergrowth of a forest: mushrooms, slithering insects, and, yes, snakes. Marseus’s work was highly prized, collected by the likes of Cosimo de Medici. Numerous disciples followed him in the depiction of those shadowed recesses of the tangled and fetid woods. The genre was dubbed sottobosco in the nineteenth century, and Marseus’s paintings are still sought at extravagant prices.
But by Marseus’s time, Palissy’s scriptural explorations into the vines and infested waters of the forest had shifted to a more purely scientific, if still deistically elevated, perspective. Along with colleagues such as the pioneering entomologist Jan Swammerdam and even Spinoza, Marseus rejected the whole idea of spontaneous generation, with its almost occult premonitions, in favor of the fixed laws of biogenesis. Everything works in the same way, or it stops working altogether. This was the mechanistic insight of Cartesianism. “Spontaneous generation,” for Descartes, was simply what happened when the basic laws of nature follow their course. At one point he was so bold as to write, “So little is required to make an animal, it is really not surprising that we see so many animals, so many worms, so many insects spontaneously forming in all putrefied matter.” So little is required! Marseus’s glittering shadows and groundcover had nothing mysterious about them. He was out to banish mystery and uncover the simple rules of life. The differences between worms and men are but the result of adjusting and managing the codes of matter. This same attitude is now fixed in our culture.
The borderlands, however, are places where rules emerge, often dimly, and only over space and time, and only apart from the conditions of a mechanical fate. Borderlands are not boundaries, but passageways, receptacles of discovery. The imaginative loss of creation’s borderlands, where existence itself is formed by Another, obscures the creative grace of God, who alone brings death and gives life, who distinguishes light and darkness (Deut. 32:39). In the face of these deepest gifts, the rules and markers crumble in the borderland. Palissy’s “gardens,” as well as his amphibiously embossed ceramics, were therapeutic theaters in which to wander, neither in fear nor in pursuit of technical knowledge, but, as in the first days of creation amid the beasts and “creeping things,” in humble “receipt.” When a “time filled with divorces, plagues, epidemics, and those other tribulations” presented boundaries like birth and death as simple endpoints, devoid of God’s rule, to be wielded by persecutors and tormenters against each other, Palissy sought to hand back the markers of existence to their Maker. Here, the lowest creatures became astonishing icons of his grace.
Our era is informed by an increasingly mechanized conception of birth and birth’s undoing. We do not know what to do with chronic disease, unsought children, frustrated conceptions, obscure pasts, and uncertain futures. When techniques and statistics fail to fulfill our clear desires, meaning seems to crumble. Existence is ambiguous, however, not because we have failed to define its proper parameters, but because it isn’t ours to grasp in the first place. Pregnancy in the seventeenth century was routinely described as an “illness” by women and men alike, not to denigrate it as an evil, but because a child’s coming into the world took place within a borderland of perilous holiness, like all coming-to-be. As the seventeenth-century memoirist Alice Thornton put it, childbirth was a combination of “exquisite torment” and “infinite grace.” It was just this sense that glimmered in the staring eyes of Palissy’s serpents.
There is one baptism I performed that I shall never forget. It was a young couple’s first child, and something terrible had gone wrong just before the birth. I conditionally baptized the child, seemingly stillborn, as I had been instructed. It felt as if we had entered an abyss of holiness. Life, death, and resurrection tumbling out into a turmoil of silence, sorrow, and joy, were offered—given to be “received,” as Palissy might have said—from the hand and heart of the Creator.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.
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